Prague is the ultimate medieval hamlet in a modern world. It’s no surprise that the city has boomed as a result of tourism and growth since the Czech Republic’s emergence into the free world. And it’s no wonder that everyone’s scrambling to take advantage – tourists drinking 25˘ beers, techies building cybercafes, hippies selling hemp goodies and locals wising up to the ways of capitalism and commercialism.
So Little Bohemia lives on…and this is a great time to see it.
Prague is comprised of five ancient towns that ultimately converged in the 1900s to form the present-day city. A tributary of the Elbe River, the Vltava, cuts through the middle of Prague. The city has long been at the crossroads of Europe and traders have taken advantage of its prime location for centuries.
At one point during Prague’s Golden Age it was bigger than London or Paris. Eventually the Austrian Habsburgs assumed power and ruled for nearly 400 years. The Protestant Revolt erupted during this time and provoked the 30 Years’ War. The Germans occupied the city during World War II, which was followed by 40 years of Communist rule. Now the Czech Republic is carving out its own history as an autonomous country.
This place is sweet architecture culture. Old Town Hall, Church of Our Lady Before Týn (Tyco Brahe is buried here), the Štorch House and all the other Gothic and Romanesque houses with interesting reliefs on the south side of the square, the Jan Hus Monument, the Church of St. Nicholas and the Golz-Kinský Palace (where Kafka studied) all share prime frontage. It takes a beer at a sidewalk table (U Orloge Restaurant affords great views of the square) to absorb the amount of history condensed into such a small proximity.
The Charles Bridge connects two great fun parts of Prague. You can get beer on either side. The crowds and the bridge statues compete for attention. The bridge leads directly into the Little Quarter, which has seen limited growth and building since the 1800s. When crossing the bridge be sure to check out the sculptures lining the walls – the Madonna, St. Dominic and St. Thomas, the 17th-century Crucifixion, St. John Nepomuk and St. Luitgard (sculpted by Matthias Braun when he was 26) are especially remarkable.
Just past the bridge lies the Little Town Square. The Church of St. Nicholas is probably the best-known landmark in the neighborhood for good reason. It’s a Baroque monster with a cupola and a bell tower compared to the small shops and cafes that surround it.
It’s all uphill in the heat, but once at the top it is easy to understand why this fortress location is so coveted – you can see everything for miles around. Within the Castle walls lie a palace, three churches and a monastery. Since 1918 the castle has been the seat of the president of the Czech Republic. Hradčany is on the outskirts of the castle.
The St. Vitus Cathedral is a must see. Inside, the cathedral’s Gothic elements are accentuated in the delicate, ribbed vaulting and the soaring height of the chancel’s vault with its intricately-webbed tracery. Equally amazing was St. Wenceslas Chapel and the tomb of St. John Nepomuk. Yeah, we got yelled at by a crazy tour guide for taking a picture, but we didn’t use the flash, so I guess we won’t go to hell.
New Town is true to its name. The architecture is modern and the atmosphere urban by the standards of the rest of the city. Amenities such as shopping malls, public transportation and McDonald’s abound here.
Be sure to fully explore Wenceslas Square (home to the city’s red light district) with the Mústek Metro stop anchoring one end and the National Museum anchoring the other.
Oddly enough, the Church of Our Lady of the Snows and the Franciscan Garden are nestled behind some shoe stores by the Metro stop.
On the square, the ornate Art Nouveau façade of the Hotel Europa is worth noticing. Farther down, the Monument to the Victims of Communism and the St. Wenceslas Monument are interesting. For lung-busting tenor lovers, the State Opera House is east of the museum.
After tapping out our options there, we walked down Vodičkova toward Charles Square. This area is not quintessential Prague, but it’s still pleasant. We definitely enjoyed seeing the bullet holes in the wall of the Church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius that were fired by German troops during the 1942 siege on Czech and Slovak rebels hiding in the crypt.
Also nearby are the Jesuit College, which now houses a hospital, and the Faust House. The Slavonic Monastery is around the corner on Vyšehradská. This area is filled with churches – many that we missed.
We cruised back down to the river and wandered north until we hit the extremely modern Ginger and Fred building designed by Frank Gehry. The glass and steel seem foreign in primarily medieval Prague.
There’s a lot of history here. A short walk from the Old Town gets you to good sights and good eatin’. The cemetery is wild.